Parshat Re’eh: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Isaiah 54:11-55:5.
In 1642, Sir Thomas Browne wrote the famous proverb “Charity begins at home.” And it does. If your own needs are unmet, it is difficult to see to the needs of others.
There remain so many unmet needs. Even in the most prosperous of communities there are those who thrive and those who struggle, the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the rich(er) and the poor(er).
In the 21st century, why does this continue? How have we been unable to meet the needs of every human being in a world that seems increasingly unequal? This challenge has been anticipated and addressed in the Torah; “There will never stop being those who are needy in your land,” (Deuteronomy 15:11) and we are then commanded to open our hands to those in need.
The 15th century Portuguese scholar Abravanel (1437-1508) suggests that this relates to the idea that serving the Divine with our hearts and souls —referring to our ideological and spiritual loyalty to God — can then lead into serving God with all of our might, referring to our physical actions in the world, including the application of our money.
Tzedakah then not only begins at home, but inside of our very essences; then, after we have internalized the imperative to make the world more just, can it manifest in the world we partner with God to help perfect.
That being the case, why are we not then enjoined to manifest that spiritual loyalty by elevating all of those in need so that they are no longer in need? Maimonides (1138-1204) suggested a ladder of tzedakah, with the highest level on that ladder elevating someone to true self-sufficiency. In so many of our Jewish educational institutions, Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah is taught as the model to emulate; and numerous Jewish leaders have taken this to heart and diligently applied this as their model of giving and leadership. If we all apply this model in our communities, we then show that we have surpassed the statement of the Torah that “There will never stop being those who are needy in your land?”
Presently, we seem to be caught between the false dichotomy of feeling we must either protect people or protect our economy. The Torah reminds us that tzedakah comes from the word tzedek — justice and righteousness. It is not, and never has been, solely about money. There may always be those in need of support — educational, spiritual, physical or financial — and we must always open our hearts and hands to them.
Tzedakah begins at home, in our very souls; it doesn’t end there. While we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes, or live to see the world perfected, we must always strive toward that goal together.
Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz is a Jewish Studies instructor and the Jewish Student Life Coordinator at the Jean and Samuel Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.